February 2, 2013

Maine's court-appointed lawyers face fiscal crunch

The state's budget to pay for their constitutionally mandated work will run out in mid-April, long before the fiscal year ends.

By Scott Dolan sdolan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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Robert Ruffner, director of the Maine Indigent Defense Center, says his job is “to be the squeaky wheel to point out that we’re not quite cutting it.”

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

20130131_Attorneys
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Attorney Clifford Strike’s law firm, which represents many indigent clients, has cut its staff, a direct result of last year’s state budget crisis.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

He said the court-appointed work "kept the lights on" and that he had to rely on private clients and federal court work to keep the firm afloat.

"Anybody who thinks attorneys are getting rich off the court-appointed program, they have their head in the sand," he said. "They're ignorant. The average court-appointed attorney makes less than the guy driving the snowplow for the state, less than your plumber, less than your hairdresser."

Fairfield said that as a small-business owner, she doesn't have a cushion of money to keep the office running without a steady income.

"We work hard. We pay our taxes," Fairfield said. "The idea of not being able to be paid for the work we do, it has the ability to absolutely cripple a business."

The shortfall this year comes as no surprise, said attorney Robert Ruffner.

Although the commission's expenses in fiscal 2012 were $11.5 million, the Legislature allocated just over $10 million for 2013, although there has been an increase in child protective services in the last year, he said.

Ruffner is director of the Maine Indigent Defense Center, a volunteer group of private attorneys whose mission is "to ensure quality representation for indigent defendants in the criminal courts of Maine."

"My job is to try to get loud," Ruffner said, "to be the squeaky wheel to point out that we're not quite cutting it."

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services has been underfunded each year since it began overseeing the program in fiscal 2011. It also had been underfunded each year before that, when the service was run by the Maine Judicial Branch. The Legislature struggles in the third quarter of every fiscal year to decide what to do when the money runs out, Ruffner said.

The Maine Commission of Indigent Legal Services is a five-member commission, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. It has an executive director, deputy director, an accountant and six financial screeners who recommend whether a person can or cannot afford an attorney on their own.

The commission pays private attorneys to represent indigent clients in juvenile criminal cases, child custody cases, felony criminal cases and misdemeanor criminal cases in which a sentence could include jail time.

One commissioner, attorney Steven Carey, said he is trying to keep the conversation focused on the current fiscal year rather than on what the commission might receive in the upcoming budget talks for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

"We need to get ourselves through the fiscal year to make sure attorneys get paid for the work they already did," Carey said.

Carey said he estimates the commission has enough money left to keep paying vouchers submitted by attorneys for work on completed cases until about mid-April.

"I believe that most of the members of Appropriations I've spoken to understand that this is a constitutionally required system," Carey said. "My fear is that if Appropriations does not fund us, some of our attorneys will go 10 weeks without getting paid. They will not be able to keep the doors open if that happens."

The co-chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Linda Valentino, D-York, sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee urging them to fill the shortfall, saying that otherwise, "the State will not be able to proceed with criminal prosecutions, nor will it be able to protect children who are subject to serious abuse or neglect."

Valentino said the state is legally responsible for paying these costs and the result of not paying right away is "clogging" the legal system.

"The state has been in this situation before, and the attorneys who had been working, they had to wait until the beginning of a new fiscal year to get paid," Valentino said.

The budget shortfall talks this year foreshadow a bigger struggle coming next year when the rates attorneys are paid by the state are slated to go up to $70 per hour. In fiscal 2015, they are slated to go up again to $75 per hour.

Legislators are expected to begin those talks in the second half of February after the supplemental budgeting process concludes.

Staff Writer Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at:

sdolan@mainetoday.com

 

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